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Witch Markings & Magic in old buildings

Historic England's Nick Molyneux explores the strange markings around Shakespeare's family homes.

Halloween is the perfect time to welcome Nick Molyneux from Historic England as he explores the strange markings that have been spotted around Shakespeare's family homes...

Over the last 40 years there has been an increasing recognition of the many marks found on historic buildings which preserve a record of the beliefs of our ancestors which are not well recorded elsewhere.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties are no exception. We discovered such marks in Shakespeare’s Birthplace some time ago, and last year at Nash’s House, former home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth and now the exhibition centre for Shakespeare’s New Place.

Magical symbols and deposits of ritual objects have been widely recognised for many years and objects were still being deposited up to the early 19th century. The objects have included dried cats, single shoes, witch bottles (containing sharp objects) and enigmatic spells in written form (often inserted into peg holes). Witch bottles are usually found under hearth stones or thresholds, and in common with all of these beliefs seem to be related to keeping witches and evil spirits from entering the house through the door or chimney.

The classic mark is the daisy wheel, the six petal ‘flower’ that can be drawn with a pair of compasses.

Witches Marks
The cellar at Shakespeare's Birthplace

At the top of the staircase leading to the cellar of the Birthplace there is a pair of daisy wheels. This was where beer was stored so there was an obvious desire to make sure that nothing would interfere with the vital commodity. They were probably added in the time that the building was leased by William Shakespeare to a publican, just after 1600.

At Nash’s House one of the timbers bears a complex pattern of daisy wheels, probably beside a lost doorway. Again a date in the 1600s seems likely.

The daisy wheel is not restricted to houses: many barns seem to have them near the main entrance to protect the crops. And more recently a project looking for graffiti in Norfolk churches has identified a wide variety of marks: the daisy wheel being one of the most notable.

There is a danger of confusion with other types of marks that can be found on timber buildings where there are a wide variety of shipping marks, numbering, and marking out lines. However, the letters AM for Ave Maria and a variety of other enigmatic inscriptions have also been identified.

Most controversially, and something I still don’t quite believe in, recent experiments have led to a new interpretation for the ‘tadpole’ shaped burn marks found on timbers in buildings, often called taper burn marks. They are found in locations where it would be expected that artificial light was a requirement, for example near doorways in attics. They are also sometimes called poker burn marks when found on mantel beams over fireplaces. However, experiments have shown that they cannot be easily reproduced and that they are not likely to have been accidental. Rather they had to be made deliberately with candles (not with pokers). Despite my personal scepticism the research is pretty compelling.

There are examples of burn marks in the roof of Shakespeare’s Birthplace and less conspicuously on some of the mantel beams.

The fancy name for all of these marks is ‘apotropaic’, which is derived from a Greek word for averting evil.

The location of the marks and objects is often near entrances and exits from the building, particular doorways and hearths. This seems to relate to places where evil spirits would be entering the building. An intriguing question is why there is not more literature describing the application of these marks? The answer is the usual one with traditional folk practices, that they are not recorded because they are such a common part of everyday life that nobody saw any need to record them. There does not seem to be much evidence for them in the houses of the elite, although that may be more a question of where we have been looking for them.

The dating of any of these marks can be difficult they could have been added at any time. The creation of burn marks seems to begin by 1600, and has faded away by the middle of the 18th century. They have also been identified across much of northern Europe, so they represent a widespread tradition. How can we tell what date they are? Luckily, most structural timber was used green in buildings, so there are a number of examples where it possible to see that the mark occurred before the timber dried out and cracks opened up.

A lot of people are claiming to have seen magic marks on buildings, but there still needs to be more study which looks rigorously at the marks identified and determines what their distribution is through time, geographically and where within buildings. The discovery of these marks on churches has added a new dimension to the question of meaning.

For anybody who wants to pursue the subject further there are a number of blog posts on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust blog Finding Shakespeare, as well as useful web sites and recently published books available in all good bookshops.